CHICAGO – Teachers and administrators agreed Sunday to suspend the nation’s first-ever charter school strike, ending a four-day work stoppage at one of the largest charter networks in Chicago. But the fight could portend more to come in the labor movement’s long-running battle with the alternative schools.
The strike against the Acero charter school network affected only about 7,500 of Chicago’s 371,000 public school students. But the impasse over pay, class sizes and other issues was closely followed by labor leaders and charter advocates around the country.
Charters, publicly funded but privately run, have resisted unions out of concern that they could limit their ability to innovate. They have grown in popularity around the country since their inception more than 25 years ago.
Advocates say their relative independence – they face fewer instructional and bureaucratic regulations, and are largely free from collective bargaining – allow educators to innovate.
But in recent years, tensions between unions and charter advocates have grown. Labor leaders slam the charter movement as a failed and damaging experiment. Charter backers warn that labor is trying to co-opt the movement by organizing teachers.
“The question now is, ‘What does the (charter school) movement do to maintain autonomous schools?” Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, told USA TODAY.
“The whole point of this movement is to flexibly innovate and serve students well," he said. "If you start having a collective bargaining agreement that looks like every other CBA in big cities around the country, you simply can’t do that anymore, and the purpose of the moment gets subverted that way.”
The National Education Association – the umbrella organization for the nation’s teachers' unions – released a policy statement last year rejecting "unaccountable privately managed charters.” The NAACP last year renewed its call for a moratorium on establishment of new charters.
Advocates, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, say charters give parents with children in failing public schools an important alternative.
Nearly 3.2 million students attended nearly 7,000 charter schools nationwide last school year, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Enrollment was up 5 percent from the previous year.
Critics see charters as part of the movement to privatize public education, which they say exacerbates the problems confronting public schools by shifting taxpayer dollars from already cash-strapped systems.
Meanwhile, teachers' unions are making gains in organizing educators at charter networks.
Teachers at two charter schools in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston this year joined the city's teachers union, the first charter staff to do so.
United Teachers Los Angeles made headway in their push to unionize the city’s largest charter network – Alliance College-Ready Public Schools – when teachers at three network schools submitted paperwork this spring to form a union and begin bargaining collectively. The Los Angeles union continues its push to organize teachers at all of the Alliance’s 25 schools.
Chicago could soon see another work stoppage at a different charter network. Staffers at Chicago International Charter School authorized a strike last month if union negotiators aren’t able to come to terms with the school’s operators on a new contract. The network operates four schools in the city.
About 11 percent of the nation’s 7,000 charter schools are unionized, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Jesse Sharkey, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, said the unease that led the Acero teachers to strike was similar to that expressed by striking teachers in Arizona, Oklahoma, Washington, and West Virginia in recent months.
“Across the country, we were told that education is the key to the future, but then we saw political leaders starve our schools, keep resources out of the classroom,” Sharkey told USA TODAY. “We’ve seen taxes cut so wealthy people can have tax breaks, teacher pay stagnate while class sizes skyrocket, classes become bare-bones and not get the resources they need. We’ve seen people take to the street across the country to protest against that, and now it’s coming to the charter industry too. It’s about time.”
Gary Miron, professor of educational leadership at Western Michigan University, said the charters have long relied on hiring younger educators to keep costs down. At many charter networks, the low pay has meant high turnover. High turnover has helped keep unsatisfied staff from organizing unions.
“This strike might be more an overall sign of problems in the sector these days,” Miron said. “Young people going into teaching profession is way down right now for many reasons. This is one more sign that something has to happen or the system is going to break.”
The strike came about six months into negotiations between the Chicago Teachers Union and Acero.
Union members approved changes to their constitution and bylaws to merge with a division of unionized charter educators, paving the way for the union to negotiate on the Acero teachers' behalf.
Teachers' complaints centered on salary, class sizes, the length of school day, and a desire for the network to explicitly state that it would limit cooperation with immigration authorities. More than 90 percent of Acero’s students are Latino, and many are undocumented or have undocumented parents and family members.
Union negotiators said the charter teachers earn an average salary of $65,000, about $13,000 less than their counterparts at Chicago’s traditional public schools.
At the same time, they said, Acero teachers have 30-minute longer school days, and average classroom size hovers around 32 students. Chicago Public Schools sets a goal of 28 students per class in kindergarten through third grade, and fewer than 31 students per class for upper grades.
Union officials contrasted the rank-and-file’s working conditions to those of Acero’s top executive, Rick Rodriguez, who earns a salary of $260,000.
Rodriguez’s compensation for running Acero’s 15 schools was comparable to Janice Jackson, the chief executive of the Chicago Public Schools system, who oversees over 500 schools.
The tentative agreement calls for staff raises over a four-year contract, a shorter school day more in line with the traditional city public school schedule and the incorporation of a “sanctuary schools” provision that Acero says meets staff concerns.
Rodriguez said the agreement “values teachers and staff for the important work they do, while still maintaining the attributes of our network that help produce strong educational outcomes for our students.”
Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, said the timing of the strike seemed to be driven by the political calendar. Chicago is less than three months away from electing a new mayor to replace outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Emanuel was criticized for approving the expansion of charter schools in Chicago during his first term after he announced the closure of 49 traditional elementary schools and one high school with low enrollment.
Two days into the strike, the Chicago Teachers Union endorsed mayoral candidate Toni Preckwinkle, a top contender in a field of 21 candidates. Preckwinkle has promised to push for a freeze on new charter schools.
“It doesn’t take a lot of connecting the dots to see that politics was part of the timing on this,” Broy said.
Katie Cannady, a kindergarten teacher at one of Acero’s Chicago schools, said city politics didn’t factor into her decision to vote to strike.
“Why do we think it’s okay to expect teachers in one part of the city to work for this amount and teachers in another part of the city to work for different amount and then expect us to have the same results under very different working conditions?” Cannady asked.